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The Super Hercules' little known civilian life: How airlines operate the famous transport commercially

July 17, 2022
5 min read
The Super Hercules' little known civilian life: How airlines operate the famous transport commercially
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Few aircraft can boast about a career as long and distinguished as that of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Robust and versatile, it has done everything from transport troops to serve as an air-to-air tanker, gunship and maritime patrol, among other duties.

More than 2,500 Hercules have been produced since the aircraft's first flight in 1954, and a modern iteration known as the C-130J “Super Hercules” is currently in production.

Besides the C-130 used for military purposes, there's a civilian version, the L-100, which is operated by a handful of airlines, commercial cargo operators and governments around the world.

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Like the C-130, the L-100, too, is enjoying a second youth after Lockheed Martin decided to re-launch the type as the LM-100J in 2014. This decision followed a hiatus in production lasting more than two decades.

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The civilian Hercules is enjoying a second life after Lockheed Martin decided to bring it back as the LM-100J. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

In 2018, the first of this new generation of LM-100J rolled out of Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Marietta, Georgia, and barely a month after its first flight, a LM-100J had already crossed the Atlantic to be publicly presented at that year’s Farnborough International Airshow.

While the new LM-100J still has a long way to go if it is ever going to catch up with its predecessors, it is gradually gaining ground as more of the aircraft are ordered. Pallas Aviation, an air cargo operator based in Fort Worth, Texas, has so far added three of the aircraft to its fleet and is awaiting delivery of two more. Other companies may soon follow.

“We have five LM-100Js on order to an undisclosed customer, with three operated by Pallas Aviation," said Stephanie Stinn, a spokesperson for the C-130 and LM-100J programs at Lockheed Martin. "We continue to be in conversations with interested operators around the world, as our current operators tell us the only replacement for a Herc is a Super Herc!”

The original L-100 also had a slow start, though orders later caught up thanks, in part, to the unique capabilities the civilian plane offered the commercial market.

Even after pretty much all military-grade hardware and systems that are standard in the C-130 had been removed from its civilian version, the LM-100J retained some of the aircraft's key characteristics that made its military counterpart such a valuable asset to supporting troops near or even beyond the frontlines.

No infrastructure? No worries. Short rugged runways? Not a problem. The L-100 and its derivatives are even capable of taking off from and landing on dirt airstrips, making it a favorite among cargo operators that frequent truly unforgiving environments.

Related: 10 years of The Points Guy – 10 big changes in travel in the past decade

Lockheed Martin has developed a firefighting version of the LM-100J called the “FireHerc.” (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

Its ability to fly at a low altitude and a low speed allows it to also be of use for a variety of other specialized tasks, such as fighting oil spills from the air. This is why the few operators with L-100s in their fleets are often called in to deliver supplies to those places that other civilian aircraft can't get to.

From accessing diamond mines in the Congo River basin to delivering humanitarian aid on behalf of the United Nations, operators like Transafrik International and Safair (the parent company of the South African low-cost airline of the same name) have been active all throughout rural Africa.

Similarly, Antarctica has also been visited on quite a few occasions by L-100s, which occasionally land on the continent's ice strips.

A look at the missions recently completed by Lynden Air Cargo (the largest L-100 operator, with eight of the aircraft in its fleet), further sheds light on just how many different tasks this aircraft can fulfill.

So far this year, the operator has supplied remote Arctic outposts with SpaceX antennae and 40-foot containers used to store frozen whale meat all with the help of the L-100. The company has also flown automotive parts across the border during the Canadian trucker protests and brought COVID-19 vaccines to high-altitude settlements in the Bolivian Andes using the aircraft.

Related: Intercepted – how airline pilots handle military intervention and diversions

Given the benefits that have come out of using the L-100 for civilian purposes, Lockheed Martin has additionally developed a firefighting version of the LM-100J called the “FireHerc,” though this version has received a rather lukewarm response from airlines and cargo operators so far, with no orders currently locked in.

“We continue to focus on the concept and refine its capabilities,” Stinn said when referring to the firefighting Super Hercules.

Perhaps the threat posed by the increasing frequency and scale of forest fires in the wake of climate change will give this latest incarnation of the venerable Hercules a new chance to excel.

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin for The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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